What’s the moral of the story of The Princess and the Pea? I’ve been putting people on the spot with this question, and I’ve received so many different replies. Before reading on, if you remember the story, give yourself a few moments and jot down the moral that you’ve always taken from this tale.
Need a memory jogger? In this Hans Christian Andersen tale, published in 1835, a prince searches the kingdom for a real princess to marry. He meets plenty of princesses, but each has a fault, so he returns to the castle alone. One night, during a storm, a girl knocks at the door. She’s wet and bedraggled, yet claims to be a princess. The Queen decides to test this by giving her a bed for the night, twenty mattresses high, topped with twenty feather beds. Beneath all those mattresses and feathers, the Queen places a pea.
The next morning, when asked how she had slept, the princess replied that she had had a terrible night and had hardly slept because the bed was so uncomfortable due to something hard that left her skin bruised. The Queen rejoiced, because only a real princess would feel the pea through all those mattresses. Of course, the prince and princess married and lived happily ever after.
So, what’s the moral of the story? If you haven’t written one down, do so now. And if you had written one down and you now have a new thought about the moral of this tale, write that down before reading on.
I’ve been thinking about this since I went to Vashti-Sita Bardsley’s exhibition of jewellery created around the hero’s journey, and bought The Princess and the Pea – a brooch.
As a child, and as a mother reading the story to my children, I thought the princess was very rude to mention her discomfort, yet at the same time I realised that if she had kept her discomfort to herself, she wouldn’t have married the prince and lived happily ever after.
Views I collected as I asked around included that princesses are picky and rude, that it’s not good to be hypersensitive, that one’s true nature always shows through, that we shouldn’t judge a person by appearances. That’s just for starters.
I realised that my view had shifted since early motherhood, and for me the story is about authenticity, and the pea – given the bed and sleep theme – can be likened to dreams that help us to recognise uncomfortable or painful issues that we need to acknowledge and heal to live happily ever after. If we deny uncomfortable issues, turn our backs on our dreams, and pretend that all is well, we never get to experience – and here we slide into another Hans Christian Andersen tale – the joyful transformation from ugly duckling feeling to beautiful swan knowing.
It is said that Hans Christian Andersen, when asked to write his autobiography, replied that it was already written, as The Ugly Duckling. He struggled throughout his life with issues of authenticity and belonging. I wonder what he would tell us today, about the moral of The Princess and the Pea.
And what’s your personal take on the moral of the story?